Which Mac should you buy?

When it comes to purchasing a Mac, we've got the lowdown on each model to help you make a buying decision.

Which Mac should I buy?

Mac mini

What is it? The Mac mini is Apple’s entry-level desktop Mac. It’s slower than Apple’s other desktop computers—the iMac and the Mac Pro—but it remains fast enough for general-purpose use.

Who’s it for? Apple targets first-time Mac users with the Mac mini. If you’re switching from a PC, you can use your PC’s keyboard and mouse with the Mac mini. The Mac mini is also ideal as a secondary Mac in your home, and it can integrate into your home entertainment center.

What are the specifications? What makes the Mac mini stand out is its small size. It doesn’t take up a lot of desk space.

Apple sells three Mac mini models. The $499 model has a 1.4GHz dual-core Core i5 CPU, a 5,400-rpm 500GB hard drive, 4GB of memory and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 GPU. The $699 model includes a 2.6GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, a 5,400-rpm 1TB hard drive 8GB of memory, and Intel Iris Graphics. The $999 model has a 2.8GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, a 1TB Fusion Drive, 8GB of memory, and Intel Iris Graphics.

The Mac mini does not include a display, keyboard, or mouse, so you’ll have to provide your own—or you can customize your order to include these devices as extra-cost options.

Since the Mac mini lacks an optical drive, you need to buy an external USB optical drive if you want to read or burn CDs and DVDs.

How do I connect stuff? Like Apple’s other Macs, the Mac mini has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It also has four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, and an SDXC card slot. It also has a gigabit ethernet port, in case you want to connect to a wired network.

To connect a display, you can use the HDMI port or a Thunderbolt 2 port. You might have to buy an adapter if your display doesn’t have either HDMI or Mini DisplayPort (which connects to the Mac mini’s Thunderbolt port). If you own a display with VGA and/or DVI output, you’ll need either the Mini DisplayPort-to-VGA Adapter ($29 on the Apple Store) or the Mini DisplayPort-to-DVI Adapter ($29 on the Apple Store).

How fast is it? The Mac mini won’t set any speed records—it’s among the slowest Macs in Apple’s lineup. But don’t judge its performance too harshly. For general use (writing, email, Web, social media) and for editing short videos, the Mac mini does just fine.

Macworld’s buying advice: For new Mac users switching from a PC, the Mac mini is an excellent machine, if you don’t mind not having the latest processors. It’s a great choice for shoppers on a budget, or for someone who wants a second computer in the home. It handles everyday usage well. If, however, you want to use a Mac as a production machine for video editing or some other task that requires substantial processing power, consider an iMac.

Ready to buy a Mac mini? Go to the Apple Store

iMac

Apple has two versions of the iMac. Let’s go over the standard iMac first, followed by the iMac with Retina 5K display.

What is it? The iMac is Apple’s iconic all-in-one computer. Made of aluminum, the iMac has a built-in display and looks stately as it sits on a desk. It also offers top-notch performance.

Who’s it for? The iMac is great for both novices and demanding users. It can handle general-purpose and heavy-duty tasks equally well. It’s ideal for someone who needs to buy a complete computer setup (keyboard, mouse or trackpad, and display) and wants to maximize workspace efficiency.

What are the specifications? Two standard iMac models are currently available with 21.5-inch 1920 x 1080-resolution displays. Both have a 1TB hard drive. Apple no longer makes a 27-inch iMac with a standard display.

The entry-level 21.5-inch $1,099 iMac has a dual-core 1.6GHz Core i5 processor and Intel HD Graphics 6000 graphics. The 21.5-inch $1,299 iMac has a 2.8GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and Intel Iris Pro Graphics 6200 integrated graphics. The hard drives in the 21.5-inch iMac models are 5,400-rpm drives.

You can’t upgrade the 21.5-inch iMac after you buy it, so consider paying an extra $200 at the outset for a memory upgrade to 16GB. The 21.5-inch iMac also offers a Fusion Drive or a flash storage upgrade.

You can upgrade the RAM on the 27-inch iMac easily. The machine has four RAM slots, accessible through the back. Apple installs the standard 8GB as a pair of 4GB memory modules, so you can add more RAM after you buy the system. Or if you prefer, you can upgrade the RAM at the point of purchase to 16GB ($200) or 32GB ($600).

The iMac comes with Apple’s Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse 2. If you order online from the Apple Store, however, you can switch the keyboard to a version with a numeric keypad, and switch the mouse to a wired Apple Mouse or a Magic Trackpad 2 ($50). You can opt to get both a Magic Mouse 2 and a Magic Trackpad 2 for $129 extra.

The iMac does not have an optical drive. If you want to read or burn CDs and DVDs, you need to buy an external USB optical drive.

How do I connect stuff? Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are built-in. All iMacs have four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, a gigabit ethernet port, and an SDXC card slot.

If you want to connect a FireWire device, you’ll need to use a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter ($29 on the Apple Store). USB 2.0 devices can connect to the iMac’s USB 3.0 ports.

How fast is it? The iMacs are among Apple’s fastest computers, but their hard drives are a performance bottleneck. If you can upgrade to a Fusion Drive or flash storage, you’ll gain a significant performance boost. The $1,299 iMac’s graphics performance is good enough for games. The $1099 iMac has an attractive price, but you make huge sacrifices in performance.

Macworld’s buying advice: For new Mac owners, the $1,299 iMac is a good alternative to the Mac mini, providing a nice performance increase. If performance is your top priority, consider a Fusion Drive upgrade. On a 21.5-inch iMac, the 8GB of RAM should be fine, but buying the RAM upgrade at the point of purchase could help you avoid some hassle in the future.

Ready to buy an iMac (with standard display)? Go to the Apple Store

iMac with Retina display

iMac with Retina 5K display

iMac with Retina display

What is it? The iMac with Retina display is like Apple’s standard iMac, but with an ultra high-resolution display.

Who’s it for? The Retina iMac is designed for professionals who work with high-resolution videos, photos, or images. Or it’s for the demanding user who wants the best image quality for everyday use.

What are the specifications? Apple offers one 21.5-inch model ($1499) model with a 4096x2304 resolution screen. It has a quad-core 3.1GHz Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM (not user upgradable but upgradeable at the time for purchase to 16GB), a 1TB 5,400-rpm hard drive, and Intel Iris Pro Graphics 6200.

Apple's 27-inch iMacs are available only with a 5120x2880-resolution Retina display. Apple offers three models of the 27-inch Retina iMac. The $1,799 model has a quad‑core 3.2GHz Core i5 processor, a 1TB 7,200-rpm hard drive, and a 2GB AMD Radeon R9 M380 graphics processor. The $1,999 model also has a quad‑core 3.2GHz Core i5 processor, but it comes with a 1TB Fusion Drive and a 2GB AMD Radeon R9 M390 graphics processor. The $2,299 model has a quad‑core 3.3GHz Core i5 processor, a 2TB Fusion Drive, and a 2GB AMD Radeon R9 M395 graphics processor. All 27-inch iMacs have 8GB of RAM that is user upgradable to 32GB.

How do I connect stuff? Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are built-in. All Retina iMacs have four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, a gigabit ethernet port, and an SDXC card slot.

If you want to connect a FireWire device, you’ll need to use a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter ($29 on the Apple Store). USB 2.0 devices can connect to the iMac’s USB 3.0 ports.

How fast is it? The Retina iMacs are among Apple’s fastest computers when it comes to single-core performance. When it comes to multi-core speed, the Mac Pros with more than four cores are faster machines. You can improve the multi-core performance by opting for the 4.0GHz Core i7 upgrade in the $1,999 and $2,299 in the 27-inch models, or the 3.3GHz Core i7 upgrade in the 21.5-inch model—you'll pay more, but it may be worth it to your for the performance boost. The $1,799 27-inch Retina iMac does not offer a processor upgrade.

Macworld’s buying advice: The allure of the Retina display is strong; you’ll love the way it looks. You may not love the way the price looks, however. If you are hesitant about the price, it won’t take long to get over it, once you’ve used the Retina iMac for a couple of weeks. Here’s a thought that might convince you: Better 5K displays, such as Dell’s UP2715K, costs about $2,000 on Newegg.

Read our complete review of the 21.5-inch iMac/3.1GHz with Retina 4K display (Late 2015)

Read our complete review of the 27-inch iMac/3.3GHz with Retina 5K display (Mid 2015)

Ready to buy an iMac with Retina display? Go to the Apple Store

Mac Pro

The new Mac Pro (2013).

What is it? The Mac Pro is Apple’s workstation. It’s designed for professionals who need a powerful and flexible machine.

Who’s it for? The Mac Pro is ideal for professionals who work with applications that use as many processing cores as possible—video-editing applications, image-editing software, 3D programs, and the like.

What are the specifications? You’ll find two standard-configuration models. The $2,999 Mac Pro has a 3.7GHz quad-core Xeon E5 processor, 12GB of memory, and dual AMD FirePro D300 graphics processors with 2GB of video memory. The $3,999 Mac Pro provides a 2.5GHz six-core Xeon E5 processor, 16GB of memory, and dual AMD FirePro D500 graphics processors with 3GB of video memory. Both models include 256GB of flash storage.

The Mac Pro offers buyers some appealing build-to-order options. You can add up to 64GB of memory, upgrade to 512GB or 1TB of flash storage, upgrade the graphics, or upgrade the processor (to a 12-core CPU).

How do I connect stuff? Unlike the previous Mac Pro, the new Mac Pro has no internal options for connecting PCI expansion cards or internal storage drives. The new Mac Pro relies on its six external Thunderbolt 2 ports for add-ons. If you have an old Mac Pro tower and PCI cards and/or drives that you want to use, you’ll need to buy a Thunderbolt expansion chassis for the cards and external cases for the drives.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth come built-in on the new Mac Pro. The machine has four USB 3 ports, dual gigabit ethernet jacks, and HDMI. Audio professionals should know that the Mac Pro has a combined optical digital audio input and analog output minijack. The computer doesn’t have FireWire connections.

How fast is it?  Apple says that the new Mac Pro is a “video editing powerhouse” capable of handling 4K video editing, that 3D applications will see “ultrafast rendering,” and on and on. And our first set of tests reflects that. If you use Final Cut Pro X, you’ll see huge performance gains. If you use applications that can take advantage of as many processing cores as are available, then the Mac Pro really shines.

However, if you’re more of a “prosumer” than a professional—someone who is an expert Mac user, but doesn’t use high-end apps—then you’re not going to see a big jump in performance. You’re probably better off with an iMac, especially if you use the iLife apps a lot. iLife actually performs better with the processors in the iMac than those in the Mac Pro.

Macworld’s buying advice: If you are doing professional work and require extreme processing capability, the Mac Pro will serve you well. If you’re a power user who doesn’t need expansion capability and uses iLife often instead of any pro apps, consider choosing an iMac or a Retina MacBook Pro instead.

Read our complete review of the 3.7GHz quad-core Mac Pro

Read our complete review of the 3.5GHz 6-core Mac Pro

Read our complete review of the 3.0GHz 8-core Mac Pro

Ready to buy a Mac Pro? Go to the Apple Store

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a previous article that includes the most up-to-date information as of April 28, 2016.

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